Productivity and Remote Work
As organizations are debating their return-to-office policies, one of the metrics they’re examining is productivity, particularly productivity during a COVID-induced work from anywhere (WFA) workforce. Microsoft’s study in the first year of the pandemic found, remarkably, that productivity either was the same as pre-pandemic levels or higher.
Still another study found that 40% of employees surveyed during the pandemic reported that they were more productive than when they worked in the office; some of those gains came from increased hours worked. In that same survey, only 15% reported being less productive than working in office.
WFA during the pandemic is not the best test of WFA or hybrid. People were understandably anxious, lonely, depressed, grieving, overwhelmed, and had children doing schooling from home and/or were taking care of or worried about loved ones. What’s amazing is that there wasn’t a big drop in productivity during that phase of the pandemic.
But working under those circumstances can be challenging. In addition to whatever personal challenges people have had during the pandemic (on top of their usual challenges), there was the challenge for many leaders and managers of how to lead and manage remote teams. There was also the challenge of working under leaders and managers who did not (yet) know how best to lead and manage remote teams.
It's no surprise, then, that many people experienced burnout, wanted work that was more aligned with their values, and wanted to work in an organization that had a better culture. Now, most school-age children are back physically at school and life with COVID is generally less scary and dire than its earlier days. How does productivity fair?
As organizations are heading back to the office at least some days/week, one study compared productivity when people are in the office 5 days/week versus 3 days/week. They found no difference in productivity.
As we think about productivity going forward, I would love to see more nuance in the data collected. For instance, on some level, does productivity for remote or hybrid employees (compared to fully in person) depend on employees’ level of engagement? Of their level of burnout? Of managers’ ability to manage remote employees well—and to schedule the “just right” amount of meetings? My prediction is that productivity would go up with the first and last, and down with burnout. Other factors to take into account when looking at productivity:
are employees being asked to take on additional work? This is particularly germane if the team has lost members who have not been replaced.
are employees being asked to do the same amount of work with fewer resources?
are managers and/or leaders making good use of collaboration and communication tools and helping employees be productive?
Then there is the larger question—beyond in-office or remote work—of what should be the benchmark of ideal productivity? Were employees being asked to be productive at a level that, ultimately, is unsustainable for most people and contributed to burnout and the Great Resignation? What is “sustainable productivity”?